“What atonement is there for blood spilt upon the earth?”
The Greek playwright Aeschylus asked this question during the fifth century BCE, and it is one I am pondering mightily today as the news comes in that a young man in my small town was killed by police officers yesterday during a tragic event involving mental illness and confusion and guns.
Is there atonement for blood spilt, no matter what the events were that led to it? Can we make amends for the taking of another’s life?
In Judaism, there are two acts that may be considered unforgiveable: murder and defamation of character. In Jodi Picoult’s The Storyteller, the character Leo explains why this is so:
’You know, in Judaism, there are two wrongs that can’t be forgiven. The first is murder, because you have to go to the wronged party and plead your case, and obviously you can’t if the victim is six feet underground. But the second unforgivable wrong is ruining someone’s reputation. Just like a dead person can’t forgive the murderer, a good reputation can’t ever be reclaimed.’
Because being forgiven requires making some sort of restitution to the person whom we have wronged, which is not possible when we either take another’s life or ruin another’s reputation, these sins seemingly exist unchanged forever. Without atonement and forgiveness, the weight of acts such as these lays like a heavy blanket upon all of those people affected, both directly and indirectly, by them.
And, even though my mind accepts that these deeds cannot be pardoned by the people against whom they have been committed, my heart yearns for a different answer . . . it seeks to find a way that some of that heaviness can be lifted. Because, if it remains forever unabated, the legacy we are leaving is not just the blood spilt on the earth but the insurmountable weight of lack of forgiveness on top of that blood. And, frankly, I am not sure how much more of either of those things our beautiful planet, or her beautiful inhabitants, can hold.
Is it possible to make amends, even when atoning is impossible?
Today, Matthew Cordle sits in an Ohio jail cell, serving a sentence for aggravated vehicular homicide and driving while intoxicated.
Here is what I know about this young man: On June 22, 2013, after a night of bar-hopping with his friends, Cordle got into his vehicle, turned the key in the ignition, and began driving drunkenly and recklessly, eventually entering the wrong side of a highway and plowing into the car of 61-year-old Vincent Canzani, who was killed.
And on September 6, 2013, the nonprofit organization Because I Said I Would released a videotape containing Matthew Cordle’s confession to these crimes.
What I cannot know but can imagine is the pain and suffering endured by the people who loved and lost Vincent Canzani, the people who will never again hear his voice or see his smile, the people who will now led lives that no longer include his presence, the people who had lost touch with him and were perhaps waiting until the timing was right to reconnect with him and who will now not get that chance.
What I also cannot know but can imagine is the pain and suffering endured by Matthew Cordle, the mental and emotional anguish caused by replaying that fateful scene again and again in one’s mind, the unrelenting weight of secrecy that lay on his heart for these past few months, and the inescapable guilt that he will likely carry with him for the rest of his days.
Can any of this heaviness ever be lifted? Can the suffering be lightened in some way?
To make amends means literally “to fix”; just as we amend a phrase in a document, we go back to something and change it so that it is correct.
In the case of Vincent Canzani, and all those affected by violence, it is impossible to fix what has happened. No one can go back and change things to make them correct.
But “to amend” also means “to make better,” and I wonder if that isn’t always possible.
No, we cannot make the world without Canzani and all the others whose blood has been spilt a better place than it was with them -- certainly not for any of the people who were in their lives.
What we can do, however, is make the world a better place than it is in the aftermath of their deaths. This is being done by countless people and organizations who have chosen to wage peace in the wake of the countless atrocities that have occurred throughout our planet; who honor those lost by opening their minds and hearts to include people whom they misunderstand or fear; and who chose daily to turn their thoughts, words, and actions to love, compassion, and peace, rather than hatred, vengeance, and war.
And perhaps Matthew Cordle himself can make the world a better place than it is in the aftermath of his horrific crime. His videotaped confession and plea to others to refrain from drinking and driving absolutely changed my world and that of my family. Here it is:
Hopefully, my children stored this profoundly moving speech somewhere in their minds. Maybe, if they ever find themselves in the situation where they and their friends are drinking, they will draw on this memory to encourage them to take responsibility and avert the possibility of a fatal transgression such as this one.
As I listen to Matthew Cordle say the words, “I killed a man,” and as I look into his bright blue eyes gazing at mine from my computer screen, I feel inspired. Surely, if he can take responsibility for this unconscionable act for which he may never be able to atone or be forgiven . . . then can I not find my own capacity to take full responsibility for my unconscionable acts?
Opinions abound about his motives (and those of his lawyers), of course; and perhaps there were hopes that this confession would lead to a lessening in his punishment. I really am not concerned with any of his ulterior motives, just as I am unconcerned about his motives when he drank all that beer or got behind the wheel of his car that night. What matters to me is what he has done. He has taken his horrendous act and attempted to make something good be born from something seemingly devoid of value altogether.
These are still very early hours after my community member was killed. I have no idea if amends will ever be possible.
Our friend Aeschylus also has this to say about atonement:
“And though all streams flow from a single course
to cleanse the blood from polluted hand,
they hasten on their course in vain.”
But is that true? Can such atrocities never be cleansed? And, if that is the case, aren’t all of us who survive them the ones left carrying that weight?
Cordle’s hands will always be polluted; the weight of Canzani’s blood will always be felt on the earth. But I truly believe -- I have to -- that we have learned something in the two and a half millennia since Aeschylus wrote his plays. The weight of all the bloodshed of those intervening years, and specifically of the lack of forgiveness that resulted from it, has surely taught us something. And if we are to survive, as individuals, as a species, and as a planet, we must each work to remove some of that weight.
This is how we make the situation better.
This is how we make amends.